Precarious position

The wheels aren't falling off the Big Orange Express but they're a little wobbly in the aftermath of Saturday's 38-7 blowout loss to LSU.

This would be the ideal time for Tennessee to bounce back with a smashing victory against an outmanned foe but the schedule isn't cooperating. One week after facing top-ranked LSU, the Vols must face second-ranked Alabama ... in Tuscaloosa, no less.

In its storied history Tennessee has never before faced the NCAA's No. 1 and 2 teams consecutively. In fact, you must go back to 1964 to find the last time the Vols played top-10 teams in succession. The '64 squad actually faced three top-10 teams in a row — losing to No. 3 Alabama 19-8, tying No. 7 LSU 3-3, then beating No. 7 Georgia Tech 22-14.

With the 2011 Vols still hemorrhaging from the LSU dissection and Alabama smelling blood in the water, they clearly are in a precarious position: Another annihilation could send the train off the tracks.

Since most of Tennessee's freshmen won big in high school, you wonder how they must be feeling on the heels of Saturday's trouncing.

"I'm sure it sucks," senior tailback Tauren Poole said. "But guys aren't really showing emotions now because they don't want to disappoint Coach (Derek Dooley).

"We've got to stay positive. It's easy to be negative, easy to get down on yourself as a football team. We don't want any negativity in the locker room because it could get ugly if we continue to be negative and we won't win another game. We've got to stay positive and confident in each other."

There was very little positive to glean from the LSU loss and there seems to be no legitimate reason for confidence heading to Bama. So, what else can the Vols do to keep a bad situation from becoming a disaster?

"You've got to start focusing on every little detail," redshirt sophomore nose tackle Daniel Hood said. "If every person gets an inch better this week, then combined it will be a big difference than what we saw Saturday. We've just got to keep everybody focusing on the small (stuff) to make everything better.

"It's another game, another opportunity. We didn't show in the last one, so we know we've got to come out and perform in this one."

To their credit, the youthful Vols competed with considerable energy and emotion against LSU. Whether the upperclassmen can keep the freshmen and sophomores fired up in the wake of last weekend's beat-down, however, remains to be seen.

"I think we just encourage 'em to keep pressing hard," junior fullback Ben Bartholomew said. "A lot of emotion is good. We want to encourage them to play with as much passion as they can. We want to get them excited for another great opportunity."

Senior linebacker Austin Johnson knows first-hand how a season can spiral out of control after a discouraging setback. The 2008 Vols suffered a 24-27 overtime loss in the opener at UCLA and never recovered, going 5-7 and costing head coach Phillip Fulmer his job.

"My freshman year we had a little bit of a bad start, and I could see some guys down and not having much confidence," Johnson recalled. "I don't really see that in these guys. I credit that to some of the seniors stepping up and making sure everybody keeps their heads up. And I credit Coach Dooley for giving us that confidence that we need.

"I think the freshmen and young guys are going to keep fighting. I think we're fine. We know we've got a long road ahead of us and we still can turn this season around."

That's true. But very few seasons get turned around on visits to Tuscaloosa ... at least, they don't get turned around in a positive direction.

Still, worrying about the trip to Bama only serves to make matters worse. That's why veteran Vols need to spend this week calming their fuzzy-cheeked teammates.

"Just keep 'em relaxed, just show by example that we're not affected by it," Johnson said. "We're going to go to work, and they'll follow."

Last weekend notwithstanding, football is a game that is meant to be enjoyed. That's why Poole is sharing some wisdom with his younger teammates this week.

"Just have fun," he said. "I tell everybody to have fun, keep a smile on their face and play as hard as they can for the remainder of the season."

And don't be distracted by wobbly wheels.

Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson (45) brings down LSU running back Spencer Ware. Photo by Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com


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